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Sunday, 15 December, 2002, 01:31 GMT
UK task force heading to Gulf
The Ark Royal, with helicopters
The task force will include the Ark Royal aircraft carrier
A Royal Navy task force is to visit the Gulf early next year, amid speculation Britain could soon be involved in armed conflict with Iraq.

Six vessels, including the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, a destroyer, a frigate and a submarine, will head to the area after the New Year.

Several hundred British military personnel are already in the region, taking part in a major US-led war exercise co-ordinated from Qatar.

The Ministry of Defence said the forthcoming mission was part of a routine, long-planned exercise which would end in the Asia-Pacific region.

US and UK Gulf build-up
Up to 5,000 US personnel in Qatar
Several hundred UK troops on exercise there
Several thousand UK troops expected to join New Year naval task force
Ground force of up to 20,000 UK troops could be announced shortly, it is reported
But the expedition could easily be diverted to take part in any US-led military action against Saddam Hussein's regime.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, in total about 2,600 military personnel will sail to the Gulf over the next few weeks.

The newspaper quoted one un-named senior official as saying: "It is true this has been planned for some time but it is a very convenient cover."

The paper also said an announcement on the sending of a ground force of about 20,000 British troops, led by a light armoured division, was expected within two weeks.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the exercise was a routine exercise which happened roughly every three years.

It would involve the six vessels travelling to the Gulf and the Asia-Pacific regions between February and August, he said.

US-led war game

The objective was to demonstrate the Navy's ability to operate worldwide and protect British interests.

It would also provide an opportunity for the Navy to exercise alongside key allies in the region such as Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore.

US military base at al-Udeid, Qatar
The US military base at al-Udeid, Qatar
The current US-led war game, code-named Internal Look, has been widely seen as a rehearsal for possible military intervention in Iraq.

It is aimed at testing the effectiveness of the US central command centre which has been set up in Qatar.

The exercise involves about 1,000 US and UK military personnel altogether - with several hundred thought to be British.

The size of the UK's participation has been seen as a signal that Britain is ready to send a substantial number of troops to the Gulf if politicians decide to go to war.

The US has been building up other military equipment and personnel in Qatar, with between 4,000 and 5,000 military personnel in the Gulf state altogether.


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12 Dec 02 | Middle East
09 Dec 02 | Middle East
09 Dec 02 | Politics
04 Dec 02 | Middle East
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